Sunday, December 24, 2017

Joy, To Go: Luke 2:1-20 - Christmas Eve

1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
  and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
A Morning Walk by Chris Ford.  Creative commons image on flickr

It's no secret that I’m a Grinch when it comes to secular Christmas music or holiday shopping.

But I’ve never grown tired of my three favorite Christmas movies: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and Home Alone.  The last of these movies was released in 1990—meaning that I’ve spent the last 27 Christmases watching them. 

The plots are all basically the same: the best-laid plans for the perfect Christmas crumble into absolute disaster.  Yet, a pack of mangy dogs, two bumbling burglars, and a S.W.A.T. team ultimately fail to crush the holiday spirit, and by movie’s end everybody’s happy, having discovered the “true meaning of Christmas,” which, by the way, has nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

Compare all this to the Nativity story, which is a sequence of unfortunate events for everyone involved: a young bride-to-be is pregnant with a child that is not of her future husband.  A ruthless and power-hungry emperor flexes his political muscles by ordering a census of the entire Roman Empire, forcing the expectant couple to leave home and make a grueling ninety-mile trip to Bethlehem.  Upon their arrival, the time comes for the child to be born—and with no room in the inn, they are forced to take shelter in the most unsanitary and inhospitable of places.

Then there are the shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Their work was grueling and lonely—and their standard of living was no better than the sheep.  That night, an angel of the Lord appears before them, and invites them to be the first to meet the newborn Savior.  Yet they come barging in, uninvited by Mary and Joseph, bringing nothing but their stink and filth.

If you take all these things at face value, you have a sequence of disasters that are punctuated by a birth.

But all this is playing into God’s hands: the census, the manger, the shepherds, everything.  Nothing is happening here by accident.  The census makes for the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Scripture, that the Savior would be born in the city of David.  His humble birth foreshadows that he will exercise his kingly power through peace and compassion—unlike the raw power and force of Augustus and the other rulers of this world. The manger serves as a sign for the shepherds, so that they will recognize Jesus when they get into town.  And God chooses the shepherds to be the first to meet Jesus because they are at the bottom rung of society, even lower than slaves. 

The Nativity story is more than just a birth.  It is a revelation.

Jesus comes alive when the powers of evil are at their worst…

He is there when everything is going wrong.

He is born to be the Savior of all the lowly, forgotten, and despised persons of the world.
This is why Jesus’ birth is good news for all people. 

Right now, our world is groaning with eager longing for the revelation of God’s Son.  In the past year, we’ve witnessed the deadliest wildfires and hurricanes in recorded history.  North Korea is threatening nuclear war.  Our nation is bitterly divided along partisan lines.  Drugs and violence infest and streets. More and more families are falling deeper into poverty while a few lucky rich get richer.  And if you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or a broken relationship; or you’re worried about what the New Year will hold, this is undoubtedly a very painful time for you right now.

Yet these are all the reasons Jesus came.   The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus shows up in ways you least expect, in the times you need him most, when all other supports give way.  His birth doesn’t necessarily change life’s trials and tragedies, but he will change you. 

Remember: Augustus is going to remain the emperor.  Mary and Joseph are a long way from home and will soon have to flee to Egypt when Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and sets out to kill him.  The shepherds will return to the poverty and loneliness of keeping sheep.  But because there is Jesus, there is joy.  That’s the promise here:  Pure joy.

Joy happens God’s reality meets your reality in the birth of Jesus Christ. 

The joy he brought to the shepherds is the same joy he brings to folks who are working the menial, low-wage jobs; struggling to make a living; doing the work that takes care of the sick, guarding public safety, and making modern life possible. 

The joy he brought to Mary and Joseph is the joy that will move you forward into an uncertain future with hope.   There will be joy, no matter what your boss says, what doctor says, or what you see reported on CNN or Fox News.  His joy will move you forward towards the redemption that awaits you in Christ.

When you go from this place, let that joy move you forward into the New Year with hope. 

Let that joy draw you deeper into your relationship with Jesus Christ, and all the ways he draws near to you—both here at church but also when you’re at home or on the go.

Let that joy ring out with love and compassion for God’s people; joining with the shepherds in praising God and telling others of the new life the infant Jesus gives to you.  Let that joy banish the darkness and give peace to your corner of the world. 

Go on your way rejoicing—because Jesus is born for you.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hopeful Expectation: Mark 13:24:37 - First Sunday in Advent

[Jesus said:] 24“In those days, after that suffering,
 the sun will be darkened,
  and the moon will not give its light,
25and the stars will be falling from heaven,
  and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
26Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
28“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Slow winters morning by johndal.  Creative commons image on flickr.

Thanks to 8 ½ years working in retail, I despise secular Christmas music

I’d rather listen to a jackhammer or fingernails on a chalkboard than be subjected to songs as Santa Baby; The Man With the Bag; Baby, It’s Cold Outside; and All I Want for Christmas is You.

I felt quite vindicated when I read last week that the constant barrage of Christmas songs can be bad for your mental health, especially if you work in retail!

Nevertheless, the stores are going to play them to put you in the mood for Christmas shopping.  This strategy has proven itself highly effective. 

But what kind of mood does Jesus put you in, as he speaks of his second coming?

After warning his disciples of the destruction of the temple, followed by wars, persecutions, apostasies, and false messiahs, Jesus speaks of cosmic calamities: the darkening of the sun and moon, and stars falling from heavens as they shake… 

His command is to “keep awake,” lest you be caught napping when Jesus returns – for no one knows the hour or the day.

It frightens me that things in our world are going to get much worse than they already are.

Most days, stress rears its ugly head before my feet even the floor.  If I’m not wrapped up in worries about myself and the people I care about, my attention is drawn to the disturbing and horrific headlines on the news—and people suffering all around our neighborhood.  Our church phone rings off the hook with people needing clothes, needing food, needing money to pay the rent and keep the lights on.  Seniors can’t get the medicine they need to stay alive.

Meanwhile, Americans are projected to spend an excess of 656 billion dollars on their “holiday” shopping. 

To me, that is very telling—because for many, the holiday which is supposed to be all about Christ is instead all about me.  What matters is that I have the perfect, white Christmas, “just like the ones I used to know.”  What matters is that I get everything I want, and get everyone what they want, at the best price.  In December, our mad pursuit of winning, security, and control goes into overdrive. 

Meanwhile, for many others, Christmastime is an ordeal to be survived.  When you hurt, you hurt worse at Christmas. 

Either way, the lust for more stuff and the fear for the future can turn you in on yourself—such that Jesus coming would catch you unprepared. 

But know this: Jesus isn’t setting a trap in order to catch you off guard, so that you would be locked out of his kingdom.  Jesus takes a very active role in preparing you.  In fact, Jesus readies you for his coming in the future by coming to you in the present.  Regardless of whether or not you are ready for him, he shows up. Think of it like the stores who play Christmas music in October to get you shopping—except that Jesus works on a much more powerful scale.

The prophet Isaiah describes this beautifully in today’s first reading: Jesus tears open the heavens and comes down—doing awesome deeds you do not expect, to work good for those who wait for him.  The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:5-7). 

To understand what Jesus is doing, look no further than the cross: he’s forgiving sins and reconciling sinners.  He’s bearing his cross with the poor and suffering ones. 

Furthermore, he is raising up the Body of the Baptized to herald the coming of his kingdom by enacting his mercy and compassion.  By the Spirit’s power, YOU—together with the Body of Christ—will vanquish the violence, greed, and global battles for power and domination by forgiveness, mercy, peace-making, and through your testimony of Christ’s works in your life.

So many Christians wait for Christ’s coming combing through the Bible, trying to uncover some secret knowledge that will pinpoint the time of his return—even as Jesus says clearly that no one can know the hour or the day.  So many other Christians seek to dominate this country through raw power and force; silencing dissent and forcing all into submission.  But the key to being ready for Jesus’ coming is to start each day knowing that he goes with you into it.  The key to being ready is to be alert to the needs of people all around you—and ready for Jesus to send you to make a difference. 

While the advertisers tell you what to want for Christmas, know what Jesus wants is for God’s children to come together in a community of mutual compassion and belonging.  What Jesus wants is for the hungry to be fed, for the world to be at peace, and to love and be loved by all people.  The key to being ready is to live in hopeful expectation—because what Jesus is tearing open the heavens and coming down to you today.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thankful Hearts See God: Luke 17:11-19 - Thanksgiving

11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”
cornucopia by elaine faith.  Creative commons image on flickr.
When I was a kid, there were a number of dear, sweet church ladies who would send cards to me and my sister—with a five-dollar bill enclosed.  It wasn’t just birthdays and Christmas; it was Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, or no occasion in particular.

But my parents had one rule: before we could spend the money, we had to sit down and write a thank-you note.

Years later, I learned that one of the ladies sent us money because she loved getting our notes.

Looking back, this is one of the most valuable lessons my parents taught me, because thankfulness taught me that I am loved.  And God worked through the love of the people from my childhood churches to bring me to everything and everyone most valuable to me: my wife, my daughter, the honor of serving as a pastor in our community.  I’m thankful for the gift of thanksgiving.  I’m blessed to be able to give thanks.

But thanksgiving a terrible blessing to ignore.

Jesus encounters ten lepers during his travels…  In those days, leprosy was just about the worst thing that could happen to a person.  Not only was it excruciatingly painful, it was tremendously contagious.  You were legally required to remove yourself from the community and live out in the wilderness.  They had to cry out, “unclean, unclean!” to warn passersby to keep their distance.  They also suffered the unfortunate condition of being Samaritan—which only added to their uncleanness.  If anyone needed Jesus’ mercy, it was these ten lepers.

They cry out to Jesus for mercy—and they definitely receive it.  Jesus sends them on their way to the priests, who will pronounce them clean and permit them to go home.  But only one turns back and thanks Jesus.  Only one is not so caught up in the relief and excitement of the moment to realize how blessed he is.  The other nine fail to see what is their greater blessing: that Jesus, the Son of God, looked upon their suffering and showed them mercy.

This is why thanksgiving is so critical—because if you’re not thankful, you’re missing out on the goodness of God. 

The way I see it, love and thanksgiving go hand-in-hand.  Love is expressed when you do something or give something valuable to you to another—and not just to get love in return, but because the person is so very valuable to you. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than at the cross: Jesus gives his life away and takes your sin upon himself simply because you are that valuable to him.  What’s more is that God had you in mind at the foundation of creation—and God has been working all throughout history so that you would be born and then baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus!  As Jesus reveals this love, and you receive it by faith, thanksgiving happens!

God will continue to open your eyes to the grace being poured out in your life every single day—most often through the people God brings into your life who love you and do good to you, but also in providing your daily bread.  In gratitude, you will hear God’s invitation to be gracious to the people God puts in your life!  You will become the presence of Jesus in simple acts of kindness as well as in greater acts of mercy and generosity.  It’s no fluke that the people who are the most thankful are also the most generous and the most joyful.  It’s no fluke that those who are thankful see God.

And given the way things are in the world right now, it’s easy to become bitter and angry as the economy does you few favors and as our elected officials battle it out for the heart and soul of our country.   It’s just as easy get swept up into the national shopping frenzy that will begin in five days, powered by the myth that money buys the stuff that makes you happy.

On the other hand, the holidays have a way of magnifying our sorrows like nothing else.  What is the “most wonderful time of the year” may be the most terrible time of the year for you.  Giving thanks may seem unrealistic and impossible.

But thanksgiving begins at the cross, where God’s love for you is revealed.  No matter where you are in life; no matter what you’ve done, you matter to God.  And God’s face is shining on you and being gracious to you to give you reasons to be thankful. 

So challenge yourself this Thanksgiving—and into the coming seasons of Advent and Christmas—to name and count your blessings.  Let thanksgiving be on your mind and upon your when you rise in the morning, when you sit down to eat, when you get dressed, when you enter your home, and when you lie down at night. 

But don’t stop there…  Give someone else a reason to be thankful.  Let God’s goodness live through you.  Let your gratitude of God’s faithfulness in the past be the hope that moves you forward into the future.  With thanksgiving, your joy in the Lord will overflow.